The figure below contrasts the average U.S. response to various questions measuring perceptions of mobility and inequality with the average response of 27 comparison countries (from the International Social Survey Programme). In other words, how far from the mean are U.S. citizens’ beliefs about life chances and the value of social inequality? The pink triangle is the U.S. and the orange line is everyone else. It’s a bit difficult to read (click to enlarge), so I’ll describe the data below.
- About 62% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their effort,” compared to about 35% of citizens in our national comparison group.
- About 70% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their intelligence and skills,” compared to about 40% of citizens in our national comparison group.
- About 19% of Americans think that “coming from a wealthy family is essential/very important to getting ahead,” compared to about 29% of citizens in our national comparison group.
- About 62% of Americans think that “differences in income in their country are too large,” compared to about 87% of citizens in our national comparison group.
- And about 33% of Americans think that “it is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income,” compared to about 69% of citizens in our national comparison group.
Americans, then, are much more likely than the average citizen in our comparison countries to believe that individual characteristics determine success, wide gaps in income are acceptable, and the government should let them be. No wonder Americans tend to vote to cut taxes and services, tolerate unequal educational opportunity, and resist top-down solutions to inequality. They think inequality is good and that individuals will always get what they deserve.
Like I said, “stunning,” given the depth of our income inequality and the data on class mobility. Though it makes perfect sense in light of our deep and abiding patriotism.
Via the MontClair SocioBlog.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
K — January 31, 2011
Americans are idiots... when it comes to class consciousness - CurlTalk — January 31, 2011
[...] class consciousness Whoops looks like we're complete and utter babies when it comes to class. Just kidding, we live in the best of all possible worlds! (Oh god please don't get into another debate about how Youtube proves that Americans are stupid. [...]
Phil — January 31, 2011
Put this data in the same report as the research that recently showed that Americans are ignorant to the actual income gap and you might have an explanation. It's not that Americans think inequality us good, they don't know how unequal things are.
It also shows how effective 'the American dream' is. People believe in it in spite of reality.
Taylor Wray — January 31, 2011
Yeah, these results are "stunning" when you look at our country as it is today without any historical context, but when you consider the 200+ years of pro-capitalist, pro-individual liberty cultural mores that have been cultivated as a foundation of American identity, these results are very easy to understand.
The American people rightly believe that the undeniable success of this country is based on self-reliance, meritocracy and entrepreneurialism, but they have yet to see how those exact values are now being undermined by corporate and elite capture of the levers of power in the economy and government. Americans indeed used to live in the country they are describing, and they have not yet realized that such a country no longer exists.
Molly W. — January 31, 2011
Well, it *is* internally consistent -- in a true meritocracy, affluence would be one's just reward (and lack thereof one's just deserts), right?
The notion that the U.S. is a meritocracy is SO deep-seated and so widespread -- it's practically in the drinking water. The challenge isn't so much making people aware of inequality as making people aware that we *aren't* in a meritocracy.
The problem is, if it's difficult to dislodge a deeply rooted self-concept, it's that much harder to dislodge one that's a source of pride and replace it with a shameful reality.
Also, how *do* you prove that we aren't in a meritocracy? Drastic inequality by itself simply affirms the preconception that some people are more capable/virtuous than others.
If the children of successful people are more successful -- well, who's to say that's not because they inherited the capabilities/virtues that were the source of their parents' success (and likewise, that the children of the poor are poor because they inherited their parents' low intelligence and poor work ethic)? (I mean, I'll SAY it, but I say it from deep-seated conviction, not because I can cite specific evidence.)
I don't know ... am I missing something obvious? I just feel like it's really hard to come up with a stat or infographic that clearly demonstrates that many successful people didn't earn their success, and many poor people didn't earn their lack thereof.
Maybe something that takes all the kids who scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and tracks their longterm outcomes versus the economic quintile of their family of origin? Of course that wouldn't take into account the barriers to academic success facing kids in low-income families/less-affluent school districts, but it might be a start.
Arber — January 31, 2011
so, it means that the americans are very indoctrinated by the ideology!
Jon — January 31, 2011
I agree that there are some very interesting differences between Americans and citizens of other countries regarding their perspectives on issues of economic inequality, mobility, and the role of government. However, I think would temper my enthusiasm a bit since the survey results referenced above are from 1998-2001, which is just a tad bit old in my opinion.
I would think that contemporary American perspectives might be influenced by major events that have occurred since the late 1990s/early 2000s such as the dot-com bubble, September 11, two wars, and the most recent recession among other events.
Like I said, I imagine there are still some very interesting differences. I just want would want to reference more recent survey data, if available, before labeling this as “stunning”.
RCN331 — January 31, 2011
Wait a sec folks. The wording of the post here claims these are comparisons, to the mean, but the graphic says the orange bar is the median. Which is it? Does this make the results less meaningful?
M — January 31, 2011
I was going to post about the amazing power of a national myth such as the american dream, but then had to look at my own country, where a deeply seated socialist ideal have pretty much eroded over tje space of a decade... Could it be that this personality centered liberalsm is simply that easy to take to heart?
Marianne — January 31, 2011
Culturally, Americans put so much emphasis on individualism, autonomy, and competition that it doesn't seem out of character that, as a nation, it would believe that success is earned and thereby granted to the most deserving. It's interesting, though, the disparity between it and the rest of the world. Perhaps the history of conflict in other countries and the devastation that has taken place on "home turf" (I'm thinking here of the World Wars and other conflicts that occurred domestically that America really hasn't seen that much of) has caused other nations to recognize the fragility of success and the historical or cultural underpinnings of low socioeconomic status. Or perhaps I am rambling.
Probably a little bit of both. Anyway, thanks for the data!
Anna — January 31, 2011
What strikes me most is not how much the USA differs from the median of the sample, but that the USA tends to be on the extremes.
contrabalance — January 31, 2011
The only thing "stunning" is how deftly and wrongly you've re-appropriated the data to fit your preconceptions, as some have already pointed out above.
MaSh — January 31, 2011
I don't appreciate the article's undertone that says this is due to Americans thinking that "inequality is good." Really? I have a non-enslaved, wealthy, black president that says otherwise. Rather, I'd say it's due to Optimism. Americans believe you don't need to be born rich to succeed. True! It helps to start rich, but rags-to-riches stories do exist, and fill our storybooks. It's the "American Dream," which brings immigrants to the US at a great rate every year. Americans aren't the only ones who believe the data in the graph: those who immigrate here probably feel the same, or else they'd stay at home.
Plus, it's worth noting that the presence of opportunities does not need to match how people use them. In other words, because there are so many opportunities for people to get rewarded for their intelligence and effort in the US, people say there is, even though, in practice, not everyone seizes these chances for a variety of reasons.
The last two bars are worrisome, or at least they would be if there were error bars or some stats to show that the US statistically significantly far from the average. I can't believe there's not some bias in who they interviewed to get results that far off base. And what were the other countries involved? People are a lot more likely to be rewarded for their effort in the US than in a country with a heavy spoils system, no infrastructure, a theocracy, or an over-educated populace.
You Will Suffer My Love » Archive » The Myth of Economic Mobility — January 31, 2011
[...] the best blog on the planet, Sociological Images, comes this excellent illustration of just about the biggest myth in the American [...]
undergrad RN — January 31, 2011
Interestingly, one of the greatest predictors of population health is income inequality. I think if more people understood that socioeconomic inequality has very real and devastating effects on the health of a population, they'd agree that the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor is alarming.... not just some curiosity attributed to how hard someone works or how smart they are.
David Jetre — February 1, 2011
"Americans, then, are much more likely than the average citizen in our comparison countries to believe that individual characteristics determine success, wide gaps in income are acceptable, and the government should let them be. No wonder Americans tend to vote to cut taxes and services, tolerate unequal educational opportunity, and resist top-down solutions to inequality. They think inequality is good and that individuals will always get what they deserve."
This is quite possibly the dumbest conclusion I have ever had the misfortune of hearing by someone posing as a professional. This sheer disconnet present in this statement disqualifies you, Ms.Wade, from any other comment on this subject. You completely missed this message of this poll.
Americans believe in self-reliance and individuality. The Government only exists to creat a level playing field--but not as defined by absurd academician-dented nonsense and impossible aircastles, but by provable, in-the-trenches, pragmatic solutions that empower PEOPLE, not BUREAUCRATS.
When you learn this you can come back to the conversation.
Woz — February 1, 2011
You know, I hate the term "mansplaining" and the way it gets tossed around so much, but even I had to chuckle a little at how spot on an exaple of mansplaining this angry comment is.
Also, Americans don't believe in self-reliance or individuality at all. We drive on socialized roads, attend socialized schools, demand socialized pensions and health care when we retire (even the most zealous anti-government tea partiers chafe at the idea of cutting medicare), etc. And as for individuality, it's amazing how we all individually choose to listen to the same music, wear the same clothes, eat at the same restaurants, etc.
Pommette — February 1, 2011
This is really interesting data, but the graphics as presented don't really show that the US is exceptional. It's entirely possible that the US is not exceptional and that people in some other countries expressed similar or more extreme attitudes, since such results would not be reflected in the median if they were counterbalanced by an equal number of countries with contrary results (such a pattern could easily account for the first two bars, in particular).
Presenting the data more fully (with average and variance, and with other countries singled out like the US was singled out here, in order to see if there are other exceptional results) would allow for a better informed discussion of attitudes towards social inequality.
Brad — February 1, 2011
Ms. Wade, you seem to fly in the face of the data you just reported. There is certainly an income gap, and the median income of all Americans is $32,000 according to US Census data, so with that knowledge, the majority of responses should be clamoring for more government intervention so as to live a more comfortable life. But thats not the case... so to take this self-righteous view that the respondants answers are somehow mean-spirited in their very nature is by and large false. That means that a vast majority of Americans who dont control the wealth are hopeful that they can move upward and are comfortable with the amount of services the government currently provides. They don't think inequality is good, they think that mobility is good and if you look at other nations with better social services provided by increased taxes, the level of mobility is indirectly proportional to the income inequality. To argue for both is a pipe dream. I think most American's understand that on some level except for you. I hope this was informative for you as the data you presented was for me.
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Tom Stoppard — February 2, 2011
Thanks for this posting. As a Brit, this explains some of my interations with "liberal" Americans, who have stunned me by actually voicing some of the most intolerant and mean-minded views I've ever heard with regard to social welfare and inequality. It's not that they're mean per se, it's that their culture is mean.
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Uncle B — February 13, 2011
The party is over folks! Burgeoning Asian growth(China) tore a huge economic hole in the hull, now America sinks like a stone! This article defines but a small section of the whole problem faced by the average xenophobic Yankee Doodle. Remember, the U.S.S.R. set precedent for a nuclear power, folded and disappeared in a decade, big bombers, missiles, fancy military uniforms,fine Military music, nuclear submarines and all - gone, into the history books. Son of a bitch!
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Horatio Alger lives on! | THE LONG HAUL — March 2, 2011
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MiraKuru — March 17, 2012
"My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what can you do for your country."-JFKAnd that ladies and gentleman is how powerful nations are built. I hope America never changes. Hard work, persistence, and understanding. True American values.
MiraKuru — March 17, 2012
Real wealth is built over many generations and through hard work. Can some explain to me how 100% inheritance tax has anything to do with a meritocracy as indicated by some of the comments made?
I see it as the destruction of progress made by other individuals. So please tell me why I shouldn't try to pass down the wealth I attained in my lifetime to my children.
Richard Naples — February 21, 2013
Considering American beliefs on evolution, climate change, and other scientific facts, I am not surprised. Angry, annoyed, and almost hopeless, but not surprised...
essayontime — November 9, 2015
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